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Why Colleges Are Going Test Optional and What It Means for Your Application

On June 12th, Yale announced a test-optional policy for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. This comes following the CollegeBoard’s announcement on June 2nd that they would not be offering the SAT online for the foreseeable future “because taking it would require three hours of uninterrupted, video-quality internet for each student, which can’t be guaranteed for all.” Numerous other colleges are making the same move. Yale had previously announced it would not even consider SAT subject tests in the admissions process, and Harvard announced that students unable to take subject tests would not be disadvantaged in the application process. The ACT has yet to cancel plans for online proctoring of the exam, but these are likely to come shortly. The dominoes have begun to fall, and our team of college admissions consultants expect to see more of the same in the coming weeks.

One of the big questions is how far this will go. The University of California system of colleges decided in late May, in the wake of COVID-19, to drop the SAT/ACT requirement entirely, with attempts to develop their own standardized test forthcoming. While many saw this as a step in the right direction regarding the inclusivity of public education, the decision conflicted with an earlier report from April that the UC administration wanted to reinstate testing requirements following the return to normality, suggesting it may have been hard fought.

Other schools have directly stated their intention to reinstate the requirement following, but the UCs have often been trendsetters. Schools that pride themselves on inclusivity, especially the Ivy League colleges with their generous financial aid policies, will have a hard time defending standardized test requirements that are seen as giving an advantage to those able to afford expensive SAT/ACT prep courses or tutoring if the UC system maintains its plans.

This places top colleges in an awkward position, but ultimately they’re likely to maintain their stance unless further publicity is given to the removal of standardized test requirements. Test optional schools have always existed— has documented nearly 1200 of them, arguing that colleges should treat you as “more than a score.” However, the top 50 colleges or so have unique admissions processes that reject more than 80 percent of applicants, and they would argue this makes standardized tests more critical. With such competitive admissions and so many applicants, these colleges currently have little incentive to remove the requirement over the long term.

While public universities and middle-tier institutions often use standardized tests as a justification for admission, with high scores indicating high academic potential, top tier institutions more commonly use them as a checkbox. They see a high score (generally above ~1470 on the SAT or ~32 on the ACT) as a simple requirement. Grades, for top tier institutions, are generally ineffective tools for distinguishing between students both because so many of the applicants have perfect GPAs and because course rigor and grading policy varies so incredibly widely by high school, curriculum, and even individual teachers. They need standardized measures to ensure everyone they admit is capable of managing their challenging undergraduate courses.

Another important factor is the crisis of value colleges will face with the growth of online education. Scott Galloway, a professor of Marketing at the Stern School of Business, has provocatively predicted that online classes will begin to strip away the value of a higher education: “There is a collective statement across America with parents watching their kids on Zoom going ‘This is what we’ve been paying for?’” He claims the “primary value added” of some schools is “getting your kid out of the house for four years,” and that acceptance rates at every tier university will rise as a result of fewer applications. As CEO of H&C Education said in his talk with Yahoo Finance on Thursday, “Many students across the US have decided that they’d be better off, financially speaking, attending a local, in-state, less expensive public institutions […] The online experience is pretty much the same, regardless of the college.” If this comes true, both middle and top tier schools may be desperate to keep their application numbers up and thus make the process easier–perhaps by removing testing requirements.

The big question for top 50 colleges is how they can evaluate academic capabilities without standardized testing and with the meaninglessness of GPA. If they do remove testing requirements, they’ll likely find ways to lean more heavily on letters of recommendation, AP scores, academic competitions, and anything else they can get their hands on in order to find clues about your ability to be a successful student in the classroom.

In their announcement of dropping the SAT/ACT requirement for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, Yale noted: “Whether an applicant chooses to report standardized test results or not, the committee will pay close attention to a student’s high school transcript, letters of recommendation, and demonstrated academic drive and commitment. As always, the committee will make decisions with the best information available and with as much flexibility as possible to consider applicants from all backgrounds and experiences.”

Whether or not the schools you’re applying to are test optional, demonstrating your ability to excel on exams is never a bad idea. If you’re looking at top schools, you’ll need this and more to help you stand out, so it’s best to get it out of the way if you’re able and explain why briefly in your application if not.

Other ways to beef up your applications include amazing first sentences to your essays and glowing Letters of Recommendation (LORs). Read my recent article on getting the best possible Letters of Recommendation!

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